Volume 12, Number 3 Fall 2001

Three Forks Ranch Stream Restoration

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by Jay Linderman,
General Manager, Three Forks Ranch

 


Three Forks Ranch is located along the Little Snake River in Routt County, Colorado, although the ranch’s mailing address is Savery, Wyoming. The Little Snake River rises in south-western Wyoming and flows southwesterly to its confluence with the Yampa River just upstream of Dinosaur National Monument. The 40,000-acre Three Forks Ranch has been owned by Mr. David Pratt since 1999. He is an avid fly fisherman, and he recognized problems with the condition of the river before he bought the ranch. Immediately after purchasing the property, he retained Dave Rosgen of Wildland Hydrology in Pagosa Springs to develop and implement a river restoration plan. The result was the largest privately funded river restoration project in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers district and the only Section 404 permit application in recent memory supported by the Sierra Club.

 Transplanting Willows
A track hoe excavates willows clumps for transplanting on South Fork.

The ranch is situated in the headwaters of the Little Snake River. The North, South and Middle forks of the river join at the ranch headquarters. The ranch has been an agricultural enterprise since the 1870’s when gold played out at nearby Hahn’s Peak in Routt County. The river bottom, being fertile, easily accessible and irrigable, was overused and abused for many years. Overgrazing and haying resulted in the destruction of the willow community along the river banks. Bank degradation soon followed and a near-irreversible cycle began. Over time, the river channel became wide and shallow. Stream banks became abrupt drops of 3-6 feet into the river. Each spring, snowmelt runoff added to the problem. Water temperatures increased and dissolved oxygen levels declined. These two factors, along with increased sedimentation, greatly reduced the fish habitat in the river.

 Forming Oxbows
A track hoe forms oxbows in the Middle Fork.

The restoration plan that Dave Rosgen prepared attempts to imitate Mother Nature and return the river to a form that may have existed before Euro-Americans arrived on the scene over a century ago. The restoration goals were to restore natural stream bank stability, establish woody riparian vegetation, greatly reduce bank erosion, create wetlands, and improve fish habitat. This required deepening and narrowing the river channel, which would lead to cooler water temperatures and increased dissolved oxygen levels. The steep, eroded banks were removed and native cobble was used as a revetment in an effort to eliminate future erosion. Approximately 22,000 large boulders were placed along about four miles of river in the form of Rosgen-designed structures, e.g., J-hooks, W-wiers, and cross-vanes, to divert the stream’s energy away from the banks and toward the center of the stream. The rock structures also created pools for fish. In reaches of the river that had been straightened in the past to facilitate irrigation or road building, the natural sinuosity of the channel was restored. In areas where the curvature of the channel was too severe, the curvature of the channel bends was reduced. When the massive reconstruction was completed, mature willows and sod were transplanted on the outside of every meander bend to further stabilize the banks and to create shade to reduce water temperature.

 Deepening Main Stream
A track hoe deepens the main stem of the Little Snake River, while two dump trucks move excavated material.

Another major phase of the project was to create off-channel fisheries in abandoned river channels using oxbow lakes and interconnecting streams. Hundreds of acres of irrigation water rights were committed to establish this fishery. Irrigation channels were converted to natural steams and “constructed beaver dams” formed oxbow lakes. Seventy-five acres of wetlands were created in this process, along with a diversity of aquatic and terrestrial habitat.

The major portion of the project was completed in the summer of 2000. The rest of the project, e.g., some small rock placement, grass reseeding, and more willow planting, was completed in 2001. We are presently working with Wyoming Game and Fish, Colorado Division of Wildlife and the US Forest Service to commit a portion of our project to aiding the Colorado River cutthroat trout. During the project, we created several ponds that can be easily isolated from the main flow of the river by using fish barriers. We have offered these ponds to be used by the agencies as brood ponds to raise Colorado River cutthroat trout for transplanting elsewhere.

 Comleted Project
A completed cross-vane and oxbow diversion on the main stem of the Little Snake River.

Three Forks Ranch also has a large cattle operation. However, we believe that our cattle enterprise and the fishery in the Little Snake Rive can co-exist. Cattle will be permanently removed from portions of the ranch along the river. Livestock grazing on a larger portion of the ranch along the river will be rotated to facilitate both river and riparian area health and cattle production. We will create riparian pastures where cattle grazing can occur without harming the river or its riparian areas.

An interesting sidelight of this project is the desire of some downstream neighbors to restore another sixteen miles of the Little Snake River. Three Forks Ranch has agreed to fund the Rosgen master plan for this next length of river and to help our neighbors obtain funding from governmental agencies. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish, and Colorado Division of Wildlife are all assisting in making the next phase of the project a reality.